Judge Denies Motion To Dismiss Lawsuit

A federal judge denied a motion from Wake Forest lawyers to dismiss a wrongful-death lawsuit that names Wake Forest as responsible for the on-campus death of a Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) student in January 2018.

Najee Ali Baker, a student at WSSU, was shot and killed on campus on Jan. 20, 2018, while attending a party hosted by Delta Sigma Theta at the Barn.

According to Winston-Salem police, a fight broke out inside the Barn and guests began moving outside.

Jakier Shanique Austin, now 22, shot Baker as Baker and another WSSU student left the party and as Malik Patience Smith, now 17, pointed a gun at the crowds. Neither Smith nor Austin were students at Wake Forest or WSSU. Malik was arrested in January 2018 and released from jail in April of this year. Austin was arrested and charged with Baker’s murder in April 2018.

Baker’s mother, Jemel Ali Dixon, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit May 7 in the Middle District of North Carolina court. The lawsuit names Wake Forest, the university’s chapter of Delta Sigma Theta and Rhino Sports & Entertainment Services LLC, which provided private security for the party, as defendants. It seeks at least $75,000 in damages.

On Sept. 20, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Eagles denied Wake Forest’s motion to dismiss, the clerk’s office of the Middle District of North Carolina confirmed to the Old Gold & Black.

According to the Winston-Salem Journal, Eagles wrote in her brief order that the issues raised by Wake Forest are better resolved with a more developed factual record. In lawsuits, plaintiffs and defendants usually exchange information in a process called discovery and have witnesses provide sworn testimony before a trial date is set.

William K. Davis, an attorney for the university, declined to comment to the Old Gold & Black.

In the motion to dismiss the case filed in early July, attorneys for Wake Forest disputed the allegations of the lawsuit — which allege that Wake Forest did not provide adequate security measures and that the university ignored the signs of previous dangerous incidents at the Barn and still reduced security, all of which allowed the fatal shooting to occur.

One of the attorneys said that Wake Forest cannot be held liable for Baker’s death, as the shooting was “literally unprecedented,” and that the university’s actions did not have anything to do with the shooting. They also note that the dangerous incidents mentioned in the lawsuit were only fist-fights.

In response to the motion to dismiss earlier this summer, one of Dixon’s attorneys, Jonathan Fazzola, argued that Wake Forest had plenty of warning to prepare for such an occurrence, the Journal said. The original lawsuit cited an external audit of Wake Forest police completed in August 2014 and the resulting report, which recommended that the university increase security at large events. Fazzola argued that administrators ignored these recommendations.

Fazzola did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the judge’s denial of the dismissal motion.

The university’s chapter of Delta Sigma Theta also filed court papers on Sept. 24 to dismiss the lawsuit’s claims against the sorority, the Journal reported. Attorneys for the sorority said that Delta Sigma Theta had no ability to predict the shooting, had no duty of care for Baker and had no control over how Wake Forest handles large events.

Jeffrey D. Keister, the attorney representing the sorority, did not immediately return request for comment.

Rhino Sports & Entertainment LLC had also filed a written answer in July that denied allegations of neglect, the Journal reported.

No trial date has been set yet.